Drone attacks are causing serious psychological harm to children in Yemen, an expert reports, and may also be pushing young men into the arms of al-Qaeda.
Dr Peter Schaapveld, a clinical and forensic psychologist, was reporting his findings from a trip to Yemen in February, in which he assessed the psychological impact of drone strikes on those communities hit by the unmanned aerial weapons.
Speaking near the Houses of Parliament on Monday, Dr Schaapveld said the “most disturbing” finding from the psychological clinics, over three days in the southern Yemeni area of Adan, was the impact on children.
He said the appearance of the children he saw was of “hollowed-out shells of children” who looked “sullen” and had “lost their spark”.
He gave the example of eight-year-old Yasmin (not her real name), who was next door to a house targeted in a presumed drone strike.
“Her father said that she vomits every day, and also when she hears aircraft, or drones, or anything related,” said Dr Schaapveld. “She said, in her own words, ‘I am scared of those things because they throw missiles.'”.
They breed animosity and tear apart the fabric of some of the poorest and disenfranchised communities in the world. Kat Craig, Reprieve
Dr Schaapveld also said the girl suffered from nightmares. “She has been waking terrified from her sleep,” he said. “She points to the ceiling and says ‘people there want me to suffocate’.
“Her dreams are of dead people, planes and people running around scared.”
Other effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on children, and in the case of Yasmin, include not wanting to go to school, being unable to form relationships or play with other children, and arguing with siblings.
Kat Craig, legal director at Reprieve, which led the fact-finding mission to Yemen, said: “These findings represent further evidence that drones not only kill innocent civilians, but that their use amounts to a form of psychological torture and collective punishment.
“Children are afraid to go to school and adults are unable to work, socialise or function with any semblance of normality.
We did hear young men say that ‘they are forcing us into the hands of al-Qaeda, what else are we supposed to do?’ Dr Peter Schaapveld
“As a result drones abjectly fail to achieve their purported purpose: instead of keeping us safe, they breed animosity and tear apart the fabric of some of the poorest and disenfranchised communities in the world.
“A hellfire missile costs over $60,000 which could be spent building schools and wells. Yemen needs aid and our support, not drones.”
Dr Schaapveld said the overriding concerns of the people he saw was for the children in their communities, and for the future of the communities.
He said: “There was one man I recalled as saying “They know where al-Qaeda are – why are they attacking us?'”
“There was concern about what the Yemeni government was doing and why they were letting it happen”.
However, Dr Schaapveld also told Channel 4 News that some of the young men he saw felt they were being driven towards al-Qaeda by the perceived western drone threat.
“We did hear young men say that ‘they are forcing us into the hands of al-Qaeda, what else are we supposed to do?’
“Another young man, 17 years of age, he said prior to this, prior to the strikes: ‘I was very interested in the western culture. Me and my friends followed western fashion, listened to western music and watched western films. Now we have no interest in the west because of what has been done to us.'”
John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the all-party group, said: “I think the use of armed drones is not reducing the amount of terrorism. I think it is maintaining it or maybe even increasing it. We want to have a strategy that achieves peace in the world.”
Dr Schaapveld was invited to Yemen with charity Reprieve, and has reported his findings to the all-party parliamentary group on drones. He held clinics in the Adan region over three days, during which he saw 34 people.
He said that of the 34 people, 28 gave information that he was confident was of “scientific value”. Of those 28, he said 71 per cent were suffering from “full blown” post traumatic stress disorder, that 90 per cent “had symptoms” and that “99 per cent, almost all of them” had psychological abnormalities.”
Research from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggests that there have been a total of between 188 to 220 drone strikes in Yemen.
Though the source of these strikes cannot always be verified, the BIJ says that 41 to 51 of the drone strikes are confirmed US attacks.
In Adan and the neighbouring Abyan province there have been 92 to 110 strikes in total, the BIJ data says, of which 18 to 22 were confirmed US drone strikes which killed 112 to 171 people, 4 to 34 of whom were civilians.
The intensity of drone strikes across Yemen increased in 2012, in which there were 111 to 135 strikes in total, of which 28 to 35 were confirmed US drone strikes. Of all the drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, 491 to 705 people were killed, 38 to 58 of whom were reportedly civilians, and nine of whom were children.
Drone warfare has been most publically observed being used in Pakistan, in the war against al-Qaeda militants.
In January, the UN launched an inquiry into the extent to which drones were causing civilian deaths in a range of countries, including Yemen.
The CIA declined to comment.